Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hiram Monseratte: Victimage and Redemption?

The NY State Senate voted last night to do something that it hadn't done in over eighty years-expel a member from the body. As the NY Daily News reports: "Embattled state Sen. Hiram Monserrate was ousted from his seat Tuesday night by colleagues who say his conviction for misdemeanor assault against his girlfriend brought shame on the chamber. Disgusted Democrats and Republicans joined together 53-8 to make Monserrate the fourth sitting state lawmaker ever expelled - and the first since 1861."

What remains uncertain, however, is whether the body has the legal right to expel-as Juan Gonzales points out this morning: "The state Senate, however, can't simply claim some dubious legal authority to expel him, as it voted to do last night. New York law mandates the ouster of a public official only for a felony conviction. The state Constitution removed the Legislature's explicit power to kick out members back in 1821."

All of this will now head to court-with senate Democrats apparently in disarray: "That's why Norman Siegel, the veteran civil rights lawyer and a life-long opponent of violence against women, has come to Monserrate's defense. Siegel expects to go into federal court today seeking a restraining order against any removal of his client."

In the meantime the Democratic conference, having disregarded and discarded its leadership-and now lacking enough votes to pass anything-is literally upstream without a paddle. As the DN tells us: "The decision to kick out Monserrate will have political implications for the already-chaotic Senate. Without Monserrate, Democrats maintain a slim 31-30 majority, but now lack the 32 votes to pass anything without Republican help.The ordeal has further splintered a fractured Democratic conference that fought bitterly over Monserrate's fate. Monserrate supporters expressed concern about the precedent of making him the first senator ever booted because of a misdemeanor conviction."

So, why did they go out on this political limb with a saw? In our view, the issue can't be understood without a deeper understanding of the intersection of the political with the psycho-social. On the political side we have last year's coup that saw Monseratte bolt from his Democratic colleagues, throwing the senate into chaos. He immediately became a transgressor; and why he did this with the assault charges pending is hard for us to fathom.

But, being transgressive, puts him in the position to become the perfect sacrificial lamb-in a legislature that has been demeaned-whether fairly or not-as being both corrupt and dysfunctional. The following from the NY Post underscores this point: "Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany) agreed: "It's a very positive step forward to cleaning up the New York state Senate."

Many years ago, the political scientist Harold Lasswell described politics as, "the process of displacing private emotions onto public objects." In the Monseratte case, Hiram becomes the the object for the displaced anger of his fellow Dems for last year's betrayal; while at the same time serving-through the public ritual of his expulsion and humiliation-as a classic scapegoat whose demise is expiation for the sins of the group.

This doesn't mean, however, that the scapegoat is blameless. In fact, the very real Hiram blemishes are themselves functional for the ritual sacrificial cleansing-as Senator Breslin's remarks suggest (see Hugh Duncan's Communication and Social Order for a better understanding of how this process works).

Which leaves us, however, with the very real political aftermath of this bloodletting. The Democratic conference is rendered asunder at just the moment when being united is essential for it's survival-at a time when the political wind is at the backs of the Republicans. It seems that Humpty Dumpty would have a better shot than the warring senate Democrats at putting all of the broken pieces together